How to Buy Health Insurance: 7 Ways to Get Coverage Now

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There are seven ways to get health insurance coverage. Most people get health insurance through a job, but you can also buy your own medical insurance or get coverage through a program like Medicare or Medicaid.

7 ways to get health insurance

Your situation will determine the best way for you to get health insurance. For example, get Medicaid if you have a low income or don't have a job. If you're a senior, choose Medicare. If you're self-employed, choose a marketplace plan, which is often called "Obamacare." And if insurance is available through your job, those plans will give you the best value on coverage.

1. Get health insurance through a job

  • Most popular way to get health insurance
  • Costs less, usually because your employer pays part of it
  • Your choices are limited to what your job offers
  • Rates are set by your employer

A group health insurance plan through your job usually gives you the best deal on coverage.

Plans are usually only available to full-time employees. You can buy coverage just for yourself or for your whole family.

The cost of the insurance plan is split between you and your employer. That means the actual cost of coverage is much more than what comes out of your paycheck.

Cost of workplace health insurance

Workers pay
Employers pay
Individual$136$496
Couple$353$892
Family$541$1,287

2. Get insurance through the marketplace

  • Plans are affordable because your rates are tied to your income
  • Wide variety of coverage options available
  • All plans must cover prescriptions, essential medical care and preexisting conditions
  • You can only sign up during open enrollment or if you have a qualifying event (like moving or losing other coverage)
  • The companies you can choose from depend on where you live

When you shop on HealthCare.gov or your state marketplace, you can get private health insurance plans from companies like UnitedHealthcare, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Marketplace plans have levels of coverage, called metal tiers.

  • Bronze plans are cheap and are good for those who are young and don't expect to need much medical care.
  • Silver plans are best for most people because they balance the cost of the plan with how much you pay for medical care.
  • Gold plans are worth it if you need expensive medical care because the insurance plan will pay a larger share of your medical costs.

Most people who buy a marketplace plan will qualify for subsidies to reduce the cost of health insurance. How much you save is based on your income.

Shoppers pay an average of $77 per month for health insurance after subsidies are applied, and you can estimate your costs using the subsidy calculator.

How to get Obamacare

insurance plan icon

You can get Obamacare by shopping on HealthCare.gov, which is the federal marketplace for health insurance. Depending on the state where you live, the website may send you to a health insurance marketplace that's run by your state.

Obamacare is another name for an Affordable Care Act (ACA) or marketplace health insurance plan.

3. Buy a plan directly from an insurance company or broker

  • You can sometimes get coverage even if it's not open enrollment
  • Brokers can assist you in choosing the right level of coverage
  • You won't be eligible for subsidies to reduce your monthly cost
  • There isn't a discount for buying directly from an insurance company
  • Plans don't always provide full health benefits, so look carefully at your coverage options

Sometimes, brokers or insurance companies offer full coverage health insurance plans throughout the year. However, most plans are usually only available during open enrollment or if you qualify for special enrollment.

Look for plans that have minimum essential coverage to be sure that you'll have full health benefits including coverage for preexisting conditions, and make sure that you won't have to answer medical questions when enrolling.

Generally, it's only a good idea to get insurance directly from an insurance company or broker if you're sure you won't qualify for subsidies with a marketplace plan.

4. Get Medicare

  • Seniors and those who have a disability or medical condition are eligible
  • Wide range of plans to choose from
  • Affordable rates
  • Can be difficult to navigate all of the rules
  • Family members can qualify for Medicare at different times because seniors become eligible at age 65

Medicare provides affordable health insurance coverage for those who are eligible. For example, after turning 65 and qualifying for Medicare, a senior could get coverage for a few hundred dollars a month or less. That's much less than what private health insurance plans charge for those in their 60s.

Medicare does have several different sections, which can be difficult to understand. Medicare Parts A and B make up Original Medicare, which is provided directly through the government.

The other parts of Medicare are sold by private insurance companies. Part C, also called Medicare Advantage, is a bundled plan that unifies your coverage and adds in extras like gym memberships. Part D is a prescription drug plan, and Medicare Supplement helps pay for medical costs that aren't covered by Original Medicare.

5. Get Medicaid

  • Free or low-cost plans
  • Good coverage that's sometimes administered by private insurance companies
  • You must meet income requirements or other criteria to qualify
  • Eligibility varies by state

You're only eligible for Medicaid if you have a low income. But if you qualify, you can get health insurance coverage that's free or very affordable.

In most states, you're eligible for Medicaid if you're an individual earning less than $20,120. A family of four can usually qualify for Medicaid with a household income of less than $41,400.

6. Get health insurance through a membership organization

  • Rates are usually discounted with a group insurance plan
  • Organizations, unions and clubs sometimes negotiate to get benefits that are most useful for their members
  • You'll usually have to pay membership dues as well as the cost of insurance
  • Plans aren't eligible for health insurance subsidies
  • Options are not widely available

Professional organizations and alumni associations may provide group health insurance options for their members. This means you can get lower rates, which are typically only available through an employer's group health insurance plan.

It's important to compare costs to see if an organization's plan is the best deal. For example, health insurance through an industry group could cost $300 per month. But that may not be a good deal if you can get coverage through the marketplace for $100 per month, after income-based subsidies are applied.

7. Get short-term health insurance

  • Best for when you have a coverage gap before another type of health insurance plan begins
  • Can be cheap
  • Coverage begins immediately and can be purchased anytime
  • How much you pay for a plan is based on your health and age
  • Plans vary widely, with many options only having catastrophic coverage

Short-term health insurance is the best type of plan if you need coverage quickly and for a few months or less. You'll usually have to answer questions about your medical history before you can enroll.

Short-term plans aren't regulated in the same way as standard health insurance. This means that coverage can vary widely.

The best short-term health insurance companies, such as UnitedHealthcare, will have options for good coverage at a reasonable cost. Watch out for short-term plans that have catastrophic-style coverage and won't start paying for your medical care until after you've spent $10,000 to meet a deductible.

Plus, short-term health insurance plans frequently have coverage restrictions. This means they may not cover preexisting conditions, cancer or prescription drugs.

What to watch out for when getting medical insurance

With the many ways to get health insurance, it's common to make the mistake of buying a plan that has poor coverage or doesn't give you coverage at all.

  • Medical discount plans: These cheap plans are advertised as a way to lower your medical costs. But they're more like a coupon than an actual insurance plan. The Federal Trade Commission says to watch out for warning signs, like if the company won't put anything in writing.
  • Health sharing agreements: Sometimes called health sharing ministries, these plans may not deliver on the coverage that they promise. There is no guarantee that your medical bills will get paid, which could leave you spending months fighting for coverage or facing thousands of dollars in debt.
  • Health insurance scams: Many scammers will take advantage of people shopping for health insurance. Common scams include asking you to pay for a health insurance quote or asking you for personal information like your Social Security number.

What's the cost of getting private health insurance?

The typical cost of a private health insurance plan is $560 per month for a marketplace plan with average benefits.

Monthly rates by metal tier

Plan type
Cost
Bronze$332
Silver$560
Gold$604

Average rates are for a 40-year-old buying an ACA marketplace plan.

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How much you pay is affected by a wide range of factors.

  • Health insurance subsidies will lower the cost of a plan so you won't spend more than 8.5% of your income on health insurance. Rates are scaled based on how much you earn, and if you have a lower income, you could pay rates lower than $10 per month.
  • Your age affects the cost of health insurance, in most states. Rates for young adults are lower because people generally need less medical care when they're young. After age 40, health insurance rates increase steadily.
  • Where you live affects how much health insurance costs. For example, the average cost of health insurance in Virginia is $425 per month, and the average cost in Vermont is $760 per month.
  • The company you choose also affects how much you pay for health insurance. Some cheaper companies may have plans with more restrictions or have poor ratings. More expensive companies sometimes offer extra perks or a wider selection of doctors.

Frequently asked questions

How do you buy your own health insurance?

The easiest way to get your own insurance is to shop on the health insurance marketplace. After entering your ZIP code, you'll see what plans are available. You can also see if you qualify for discounted rates after entering information about your household.

Can I buy private health insurance at any time?

You can get some type of private health insurance at any time of the year. You'll have the most choices if you shop during open enrollment (Nov. 1 to Jan. 15 in most states) or if you qualify for special enrollment because of an event like a change in family size or losing other insurance coverage. Otherwise, you can shop directly with a broker or insurance company to find a short-term health insurance plan or to see if a full-benefit plan is available in your area.

How much does it cost to get health insurance in the U.S.?

The average cost of health insurance in the U.S. is $560 per month for a Silver-level marketplace plan. However, rates can vary widely. For example, a young adult choosing a plan with less coverage could pay under $300 per month. Plus, health insurance subsidies can reduce your costs based on your income.


Methodology

Rates for employer health insurance are from a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) analysis of Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rates for private health insurance plans are aggregated from public use files (PUFs) on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) government website. Plans and providers for which county-level data was included in the CMS Crosswalk file were used in our analysis; those excluded from this data set may not appear. Separately, data was aggregated from the websites of state-run marketplaces that don’t utilize the federal marketplace. Unless otherwise noted, average costs are for a 40-year-old buying a Silver plan.

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author's opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.